MEXICO CITY -- The entrance driveway ends at a giant concrete building. The structure looks like it could just as easily be a prison as a soccer stadium. Inside, the stands rise straight up. There aren’t any internal restaurants or walking areas, so every inch is occupied by navy blue or deep red seats. The spectators will be both everywhere and right there.
It's the Estadio Azteca, one of the most legendary proving grounds in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. And ahead of the US facing Mexico there on Sunday night (8:30 pm ET, FS1, Univision, UDN), the mood among media seems almost as serious as it would be between the teams themselves.
As the journalists and camera operators walk onto the field to prepare for pre-practice interviews, they look up and around, then at each other. They do not exchange words.
One by one, then, or sometimes in groups of two or three, the USMNT players walk through the tunnel and onto the field. They do not look up at the stands. They do not look at the ground or search for accompaniment in a teammate's eyes. They wave at the journalists and smile.
“It’s nice,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe says as he walks onto the grass. “I’ve never been to the stadium. I’ve actually never been to Mexico. But being here, the drive, the stadium, it all looks great.” He smiles wider and shrugs slightly.
After going winless in Mexico’s Azteca since the Mayans farmed corn on the local lands, one couldn’t blame the American players for feeling overwhelmed walking into Mexico’s behemoth national stadium. Yet they couldn’t seem more relaxed.
“I’m just going to go out there and treat it like another game, play with confidence, connect my passes, and help my teammates win,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said.
After the US' Thursday-night 2-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago, goal-scorer Christian Pulisic said the US would go down to Mexico and win. It seemed like an overly excited comment from an teenager who had just scored a brace.
Head coach Bruce Arena, however, didn’t mind his young dynamo taking such an optimistic approach. “I think I would like our players to believe they can win,” Arena said.
The prerogative seems to come from the top. Sitting behind a long wooden table with a microphone in front of him for the press conference, Arena couldn’t look more relaxed. He never changes his tone.
Both through his actions and his words, he makes the team’s agenda very clear. “We have to have confident players, fit players, and we have to have a little bit of luck,” he says.
It’s fair to question the team’s mentality after so many years without a victory in Mexico. Is it a lost game? Is there anything worth fighting for? Arena finds it to be pretty simple.
“We are going to try to win the game tomorrow," he says. "I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying it."
And his players, as they walk onto the field that’s eaten so many Americans before them, seem to be taking on their coach’s approach.